The coronavirus pandemic led to more than 1.7 million deaths and 79 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the virus — and international students around the world largely escaped health affects but were disrupted in their studies.
Higher education in the United States also was roiled by a huge admissions scandal and immigration restrictions, which punctuated a chaotic and anxiety-ridden year.
College admissions scandal
Nearly three dozen parents, including "Full House" actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, were sentenced in a high-profile college admissions scandal that revealed wealthy parents buying their children's way into college.
The family of Yusi "Molly" Zhao, who was admitted to the sailing program at Stanford University in 2017, paid to get their daughter into the highly selective school. The family of another student, Sherry Guo, paid $1.2 million to assist in her entry to Yale University in Connecticut.
Another parent, Xiaoning Sui of Surrey, British Columbia, was sentenced to five months and ordered to pay a fine of $250,000 in addition to forfeiting the $400,000 she paid to William "Rick" Singer, who facilitated the admissions arrangements.
Singer pleaded guilty to accepting more than $25 million for connecting parents and their children with test administrators and college coaches.
Staff from several universities were involved in the case, such as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, University of California Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. But the U.S. Justice Department deemed the schools were unaware of the staff activity and were nonparticipants in the bribery.
The January arrest of a Harvard professor who is a pioneer in nanoscience shed light on relationships between American brain power, the Chinese government and funding between the two that involves intellectual property theft.
Charles Lieber, head of Harvard University's chemistry department and a world leader in nanoscience, was charged with lying about receiving funding from Chinese research agencies. Lieber was simultaneously receiving research funding from the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health.
The U.S. government alleges that Lieber hid being paid up to $50,000 a month by the Chinese government. He also received more than $1.5 million to create a research lab at Wuhan University of Technology in China, according to court documents.
Lieber denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty to the charges in July.
In 2020, the U.S. pursued several cases against researchers and educators, like Lieber, who had connections with the Chinese government or Chinese companies.
The Trump administration issued several changes regarding immigration and modifications that affected the stability of student visas throughout the year.
In July, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a rule that would require international students in the U.S. to attend some classes in person — not exclusively online — or risk deportation during the pandemic.
ICE rescinded the rule after Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against the U.S. with signatures of support from more than 200 U.S. universities.
Affirmative action lawsuits
A federal appeals court ruled that Harvard University does not discriminate against Asian American applicants after a group accused the university of imposing a "racial penalty" on Asian Americans.
Harvard University said an applicant's race is only one factor in its "holistic" admissions process and denied any discrimination.
Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit that aims to eliminate the use of race in college admissions, filed the lawsuit in 2014, and has failed in other attempts to sue universities on the grounds of unfair admissions.
The youth vote
The youth vote, especially young voters of color, turned out in record numbers to support President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the 2020 presidential elections.
Among the nearly 240 million eligible voters in the U.S., about 20% were 18- to 29-year-olds, and they favored Biden over President Donald Trump by 61% to 36%, according to data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
Top issues for young voters included COVID-19, health care, race relations and climate change, according to CIRCLE polls. Gun violence and student loan debt were also key issues that swayed their choice to choose the next president.
2020 Open Doors report
New enrollment of international students dropped 43% at the start of the 2020-2021 academic year because of COVID-19, according to an annual report. Nearly 40,000 students — mostly incoming freshmen — deferred enrollment to a future term at 90% of U.S. institutions.
The data were compiled and reported by the Institute for International Education and published in its annual Open Doors report about international students in the U.S. It is funded by the U.S. Department of State, which issues visas to students and visitors participating in educational or vocational training.
NAFSA: Association of International Educators found that the 2019-2020 international enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities accounted for $38.7 billion, a drop of $1.8 billion – a 4.4% decrease – from the previous year.
It was the first time that the dollar amount international students contribute to U.S. colleges and universities dropped in 20 years, NAFSA reported.
The coronavirus pandemic also left U.S. colleges and universities reeling in 2020.